Rekindle the spirit of science and academia, says Academy President

4 February 2011

"It has been easier for the market to infiltrate academia and science unilaterally because scientists and especially their administrators have shown too little backbone.

Too often, they thought they would do better if they doped the academic body with a modern market-driven philosophy. As a result, we are facing more than a few imbalances in the system. It has not quite affected the genes yet, but it is influencing the bloodstream." These are the words of Frits van Oostrom, Academy President, in his Annual Address during the Academy's Joint Meeting on 21 May 2007.
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>Impact of the market on science
>The way the market interferes with scientific research is a well-known and far-reaching phenomenon that leads to enormous tension as well as tremendous opportunities.
>For example, Van Oostrom finds it worrying that, according to international comparative metaresearch, the results of commercially sponsored medical studies are phrased in significantly more positive terms than comparable independent research, and that scientific studies commissioned by pharmaceutical companies produce far more positive results for their financial backers than the same research financed by more autonomous sources.
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>Jargon and management
>Van Oostrom points out how the language clearly reveals the influence of the market on the practice of science. Universities today speak in terms of "operational efficiency" and "corporate culture", "educational yields" and "unprofitable lines", or "outsourcing", "capacity group targets", "holdings" and "core business". What is more, adds Van Oostrom, "We don't even think such expressions are out of place anymore." A parallel development is that the number of "directors" at universities has increased disproportionately. His own former faculty had a single director in 1982 (who called himself a "secretary", incidentally). Twenty years later, the faculty had 21 directors, although the number of students had remained the same.
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>Glory be to numbers<i>
>Another example of the influence of the market is the glorification of numbers. Van Oostrom says that the noble principle of "numbers don't lie" has colluded with the fear of passing judgment on content. Once the quantitative target has been achieved, the scientific community believes that quality has been produced even better if the target is exceeded. What cannot be quantified no longer counts. Of course researchers must be productive, says Van Oostrum, but is a researcher who publishes thirty articles a year a better scientist than someone who publishes three? Van Oostrom believes that the end (quality) is being overshadowed by the means (quantity).
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>Freedom of research<i>
>The knowledge-driven economy cannot flourish if it is planned. "The architects of our knowledge policy would do better to base their work on the spirit of research," says Frits van Oostrom in his Annual Address. He would like to see less top-down management and more freedom of research. The market, too, demands freedom and as few rules as possible; only then can creativity flourish in business.
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>The university is not a market<i>
>According to Van Oostrum, it is a mistake to regard education as a product and students as critical consumers. They are examples of how the market philosophy has been erroneously projected on to the academic world. He also wishes to quash two other market caricatures: the student as the "manager of his own learning process" and the study programme as the "gateway" to the labour market. The first has resulted in Dutch educational culture becoming enormously aloof; the second has reduced education to job training with very little edification.
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>In terms of university education, the Netherlands should look to leading American universities, which it already takes as its example when it comes to research. Top American universities stress the need for a sound all-round education: scientists should have a grounding in the humanities, humanities and arts students should have a knowledge of science, and every graduate should have an understanding of how the law and society operate.
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>According to Van Oostrom, universities must find a new balance between specialist expertise and general knowledge and skills. Teachers must reclaim their primary responsibility and improve the most neglected part of university education: the Bachelor's programme.
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>Singularity of science<i>
>The Academy's President agrees with the Council of Economic Advisors that the entire Dutch public sector has gone overboard in copying the business world. The unique qualities of the public sector are being denied as a result. The tide appears to be turning in science policy as well: for the first time in a long while, the government's coalition agreement aims to invest more in free, pure scientific research.
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>Van Oostrom wants scientists to show new confidence, to appreciate and stand up for their unique qualities, because it is precisely that uniqueness that brings scientific practice closer to the spirit of science and academia. That is what the core of both research and education policy must reflect. In other words, scientific practice should not by any means issue a general ban on appraisals and incentives. "Just so long as we prevent them from affecting the essence, and continue nurturing much-needed science through its spirit," says Frits van Oostrom.
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>You can download the text of the Annual Address here in pdf format. You can also order a free copy by filling in the order form.